On the first page of The Obelisk Gate Hoa tells the reader that “relationships chisel the final shape of one’s being.” This idea is a concrete theme throughout the series as it focuses on the ways that characters are an amalgamation of the people they have impactful bonds with. This becomes especially poignant when (spoilers!) at the end of The Stone Sky Essun is transformed into a stone eater made out of jasper, an aggregate rock. Aggregates are a unique formulation composed of many other types of rocks; like aggregates, Jemisin’s novels display how people’s relationships impact who they are and how they relate to others. This is most prominently shown in the relationships between Essun and Schaffa as well as Essun and Nassun. Essun’s relationship to Schaffa impacts her relationship with Nassun and, in turn, these relationships impact Essun’s and Nassun’s development as people.
Jemisin takes special care to demonstrate the complexities that come with love, namely in that love is not always given in the form we desire. There is a destructive nature in how Schaffa loves Essun in her youth, which is then recycled in Essun’s love for Nassun. Namely, in both relationships there is the use of violence in the form of breaking a child’s hand in order to impart a lesson of control so that the respective child in the situation can remain safe in their environments. Schaffa needs to teach Essun how to control her orogeny so that she could survive in the Fulcrum, where she would be swiftly killed if she were to show even a miniscule lack of control. Essun, in turn, thought of this method as the best way to teach her own child control to keep her from being discovered as an orogene in a town where she would be culled for any display of such power.
Neither of these situations are clearcut, neither wholly good nor necessarily completely bad. Rather, they are complex situations that are (within the realm of the world) considered necessary for the overall safety of the child. Obviously, this then impacts how the children see the adults that hurt them. Essun grows to be fearful towards Schaffa and unable to understand why he hurts her and grows up to think that pain was a necessary way to show love. Her way of thinking thus impacts her relationship with her daughter, as Nassun “has never seen any proof of” the love that Essun “occasionally” said she had for her (The Obelisk Gate 78). Instead, Nassun and Essun lack a strong connection.
The weak connections between adult and child are also represented in the lack of respect that Schaffa has for Essun and Essun has for Nassun. Despite their protective natures, neither Schaffa nor Essun saw the respective child in their relationships as people. Schaffa loved Essun not as a person but more as an object, as something that needed to be controlled. This is best shown when Schaffa and Essun reunite in Meov with Schaffa intent on killing her for escaping from the Fulcrum:
He does genuinely care about her. . .She’s his little one, and he has protected her in more ways than she knows. The thought of her agonizing death is unbearable to him. . . Did [Essun] not know that Schaffa would love her son as he loved her? He would lay the boy down gently, so gently, in the wire chair.(The Obelisk Gate 38-39)
While Schaffa is willing to do everything he can to protect Essun, he also sees her as a product, as showcased by how he is so willing to put her son in a node, guaranteeing him a life of pain. Meanwhile, Essun initially holds little regard towards Nassun, seeing her as little more than the idea of a daughter. The Fifth Season begins with Essun desperate to find her missing child after discovering her toddler murdered; her journey is more motivated by the idea of her child being lost rather than concern for Nassun as a person, as she never imparts much characterization of Nassun nor personalization towards their relationship. Thus Essun’s relationship to her daughter, while unconditional, is more surface level—the love for a child rather than a love for this specific child.
But this changes between Essun and Nassun throughout the series as Essun begins to respect her daughter’s autonomy. Their relationship changes primarily from Essun’s side, as she learns more about Nassun’s growth and comes to accept Nassun as her own person with her own needs that may differ from Essun’s desires. This is best represented when Essun discovers that Nassun is traveling with Schaffa. Essun’s initial reaction is a desire to kill Schaffa for all the pain he put her through, but resigns when she realizes that Schaffa is to Nassun everything that Essun never was:
You didn’t save her from Jija. You haven’t been there when she’s needed you, here at the literal end of the world. How dare you presume to protect her? Gray Man and Schaffa; she has found her own, better, protectors. She has found the strength to protect herself. You are so very proud of her. And you don’t dare to go anywhere near her, ever again.(The Stone Sky 171)
Essun sees that Nassun has (presumably) found people that care for her and give her the type of love that she needed. A type of love that Essun is still learning to provide by that point in the series, which is why she resolves to stay away from her so that she can never hurt her daughter again.
It is not until Essun learns that Nassun plans on using The Obelisk Gate that she dares to infiltrate on Nassun’s new life, and only then with the intention of keeping Nassun alive. Essun knows that if Nassun uses the gate, she would most likely die, so instead of letting her daughter be hurt once more Essun rushes to the other side of the world in order to save her. Yet when it comes down to a power struggle between the pair, a struggle between saving the world and saving a single life, Essun lays down her own to save her daughter. “[Nassun] is prepared for the inevitability of her own death. You aren’t. Oh, Earth, you can’t just watch another of your children die” (The Stone Sky 385). Essun ultimately forgoes the fate of the world in order to save her child because she would rather have her daughter alive and happy than have her daughter dead and the world saved.
It is in this final act, the one that shows just how much Essun has come to understand her daughter and finally give her the love that she needs, that Nassun begins to accept her mother in return:
Because the world took and took and took from you, too, after all. She knows this. And yet, for some reason that she does not think she’ll ever understand…even as you died, you were reaching for the Moon. And for her.(The Stone Sky 387)
Nassun recognizes that, despite all of the hardship that the world has put her through, Essun chooses love and the possibility for change, for redemption. By reaching for the moon, Nassun knows that Essun wants to save the world, to put an end to all the Seasons forevermore. Yet she still reaches for Nassun. Yet she still, ultimately, chooses to forgo her own life, forsake the world, to save Nassun. Essun thus makes the same choice Nassun intended to make—she chose the life of one over that of the world. Poetically, Nassun then also chooses what her mother aimed for: she chooses to bring the moon back into orbit and end the Seasons forever.
Hoa states in a conversation with Essun that he thinks “that if you love someone, you don’t get to choose how they love you back” (The Stone Sky 285). I think Jemisin demonstrates this clearly through Essun’s relationships with Schaffa and Nassun. She loved Schaffa as a child and was not given the correct protection and love that she needed, and in turn she failed to see or know the kind of love that Nassun needed from her. We absorb the important people in our lives and how they treat us. But we ultimately get to choose if we want to change how we love someone in return. Nassun did not get to choose how Essun loved her, nor could Essun choose how Nassun loved her in return. But both, ultimately, chose to change and to love one another differently. While they still hold onto the ways they were loved, they show that love, like rocks, are malleable—metamorphic. Love is about changing while acknowledging the parts that make you up. Essun and Nassun choose to embrace their aggregate love by taking on one another’s choices for the world, allowing them to finally love each other in the ways that they needed.